The Turkish Embassy Letters Background

The Turkish Embassy Letters Background

In April 1716 Mary Wortley Montagu’s husband was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to the court of Turkey. She and her family arrived in Adrianapole in March of the next year only to receive word from England that he was to return in September. Nevertheless, Mary did not actually step foot in England again until October 1718. During that time, she kept a journal and proved herself one of the greatest letter writers in an era partially defined by great letter writing.

Once home, Mary collected 52 of those letters and fashioned them into a narrative portrait of her time in Turkey. This collection would come to be known as the Embassy Letters and under that title became the very first literary work published under the name Mary Wortley Montagu. Even so, she would not be alive to see its publication. Published just a year after her death, the preface was composed by her close friend and proto-feminist author Mary Astell and became one of the most unlikely bestseller of the time.

Part of the lasting popularity of this truly unusual venture into the travel writing genre is that they reveal a woman who stepped herself deep in the ethnic culture of the country to which she was a foreigner and outsider. Her letters contain vivid descriptions of dressing in traditional Turkish garb and attempting to assimilate into that foreign culture in a way that maintained her British sense and sensibility and that rejected the notion of British imperialist superiority. The Turkish Embassy Letters, as the collection would eventually come known to be known, stands as a testament to the literary talent of a women facing too much misogynistic antagonism to publish under her own name in her own time. The volume has also come to highlight the fact letter-writing is truly, literally, a lost art.

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